BEIJING -- Two weeks before talks between the United States and China broke down, Beijing quietly called one of its most formidable trade negotiators out of a pre-retirement posting.
The negotiator, Yu Jianhua, a 28-year veteran of trade talks with U.S. officials and at the World Trade Organization, returned to Beijing in mid-April from his position as China's ambassador to the United Nations' offices in Geneva. With his appointment, the Chinese government began to address an experience gap as it tries to resolve a potentially devastating trade war with President Donald Trump's administration.
U.S. officials walked away from the talks after their Chinese counterparts deleted page after page of provisions from a draft pact. The approval for such an assertive move almost certainly would have come directly from President Xi Jinping, China's top leader.
The appointment of Yu signals the apparent recognition by China's leaders of a need for experience they can trust.
"He is one of the most savvy Chinese trade officials that the U.S. has dealt with," said James Green, who was the top trade official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing until August. "Recalling him from Geneva after only a year shows the lack of senior trade people in Beijing with whom the leadership feels comfortable."
Settling the trade war is an arduous task but a high priority for China. Beijing's leaders also fear a weak appearance to a Chinese public that has long been told the Communist Party had delivered them from decades of concessions to foreign powers.
The experience imbalance between the U.S. and Chinese negotiating teams so far has been one of many obstacles to reaching a deal. The Chinese side has been heavy on financial-policy experts and economists, while the U.S. team has been dominated by trade lawyers. The U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has been working on trade issues inside and outside government since the 1970s.
Xi asked Liu He, China's vice premier, to oversee the country's side of the trade talks in February 2018. Liu, who leads the Communist Party's powerful economic and financial affairs commission, had just assembled a team of young, Western-educated, English-speaking banking experts and economists, with the goal of bringing China's spiraling debt problem under control.
The team quickly pivoted. Instead of spending most of its time on trying to rein in China's shadow banking sector and other financial speculation, its members began poring over past trade agreements related to intellectual property, cybersecurity and other issues.
The rise of Liu's team had partly marginalized China's Commerce Ministry until the past few weeks, people with detailed knowledge of Chinese policymaking said. They all insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivities about how the Chinese government operates.
The ministry, which has traditionally led the government's trade relations, has a large bureaucracy for researching and negotiating such issues. It has become more visible in the dispute with the United States in the past few weeks.
Zhong Shan, the commerce minister, holds the title of China's chief international trade negotiator, but he has less experience in international trade talks than Yu. Zhong is a former leader of two state-owned garment companies in Zhejiang, the province that is Xi's political base, and his career has tracked Xi's through a series of appointments.
Wang Shouwen, a linguist who rose through the ministry's translation service, remains the vice minister of commerce for North American affairs after Yu's return from Geneva.
But Yu, as first vice minister of commerce, outranks Wang and now has broader responsibilities within the ministry, although Wang continues to be the ministry's main representative on the Chinese negotiating team responsible for face-to-face discussions with U.S. officials.
Business on 06/12/2019
Print Headline: China re-enlists veteran negotiator for U.S. talks